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Dog Tales at University of Canberra focuses on pooches in children's books

National Centre for Australian Children's Literature director Belle Alderman in the new exhibition Dog Tales. Picture: Karleen Minney
National Centre for Australian Children's Literature director Belle Alderman in the new exhibition Dog Tales. Picture: Karleen Minney

After Australian author and illustrator Bob Graham released his children's book Jethro Byrd, Fairy Child, he was approached by a young girl on a mission.

She wanted to know why there wasn't a dog in the picture book. Her reasoning? "There's always a dog in your books."

And so Graham went, flicking through to the middle of the book where a stream of fairies flew from one page to the next. It was there that he pointed out a tiny fairy dog, smaller than a five-cent coin. Although it could be easily missed in the crowd, there was still a dog in Jethro Byrd, Fairy Child - a fact that pleased the young girl.

"Imagine remembering out of the 90 books you've done, that there was a dog in there," National Centre for Australian Children's Literature director Belle Alderman says.

"But Bob said anything that's close to him is going to eventually end up in his books and there are always dogs around his desk."

Buffy from Bob Graham's Buffy. Picture: Karleen Minney

Buffy from Bob Graham's Buffy. Picture: Karleen Minney

That may explain Graham's affinity for including four-legged companions in his children's books - either as the main character, such as the adventure-seeking pooch in Buffy or because the illustrator just happens to draw one, such as in Jethro Byrd, Fairy Child.

But he isn't the only children's author to feature dogs in their work.

Alison Lester, for example, has My Dog Bigsy, who every morning walks around the family farm to visit all of the other animals. Then there's David Bedford's The Way I Love You, which saw Ann James illustrate the everyday moments between a girl and her dog.

And in recent years, Aaron Blabey has released a series of Pig the Pug books, where a naughty dog teaches young readers right from wrong by being an example of bad behaviour.

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Even in children's books that don't focus on dogs, there is often a pooch playing a supporting role, such as in Graham's Has Anyone Here Seen William?

So with all of these canines in mind, it shouldn't be surprising that the National Centre for Australian Children's Literature has enough original dog artworks from picture books to create an entire exhibition around them.

"Children really do respond to books. And if there's a heart in the book, or if there's a sense of humanity or something that touches them, they never forget it," Alderman says.

"But I think when it comes to dogs, in particular, everybody has had a dog somewhere in their life, or they've got children that have dogs so it's relatable.

Image from Queenie the Bantam by Bob Graham. Picture: Karleen Minney

Image from Queenie the Bantam by Bob Graham. Picture: Karleen Minney

"Everybody who's come in immediately starts saying, 'I had a dog once that I just loved', or 'My dog recently died and I just thought it'd become good to come and have a look'.

"I've had one of the workmen, who was doing some work as a security guard come up and say, 'Is it OK if I bring my kids? They love dogs.' And that's the whole point. We really do want kids to come in."

The exhibition itself is the brainchild of four University of Canberra students and a work-integrated learning project.

Combining their studies in art, graphic design and communications, they decided to put together an exhibition for their "client", the National Centre for Australian Children's Literature, using its extensive collection.

Held in the Mura Gadi Gallery at the University of Canberra library, Dog Tales is a tribute to every dog that has featured in Australian children's literature, and in particular those of the exhibition's feature authors and illustrators Bob Graham, Alison Lester and Ann James.

It also gives a detailed look at the original artworks - which in some cases, are much more complex than they appear on a book page. Alison Lester's artwork in My Dog Bigsy, for example, uses scrap material and paper to build images through collages.

An illustration from My Dog Bigsy by Alison Lester. Picture: Karleen Minney

An illustration from My Dog Bigsy by Alison Lester. Picture: Karleen Minney

The exhibition also includes preliminary sketches and doodles that illustrators have done to help develop the look of some of their characters. In many cases, these work-in-progress illustrations are on scraps of paper that the illustrator had lying around at the time.

In part, Dog Tales aims to show the work that goes into creating a children's book. Despite their size, the process of creating these children's book can still take about a year.

The benefit of showing this process, and one of the exhibition's overall aims, is to inspire people, and in particular, children, to create their own picture book.

"We see this exhibition as educational, or simply something that's just for fun, or to remember your favourite dog, or a chance to come and appreciate these people," Alderman says.

"Bob Graham, for example, has published 90 children's books. When we had an exhibition of him at the Canberra Museum and Gallery a few years ago, we had a visitors' book and in the visitors' book, there was a grandmother, a mother and a child who said they all loved him. So he's been going long enough to have three generations of readers.

"And Alison Lester has about 60 books. She's won every major award, and so has Bob."

Portrait of Susie, by Ann James. Picture: Karleen Minney

Portrait of Susie, by Ann James. Picture: Karleen Minney

The National Centre for Australian Children's Literature is home to about 49,000 Australian children's books - about 5000 of which are in 66 different languages. It was in the 1980s that the organisation started to collect artworks as well.

It was actually at a dinner with Bob Graham, when Alderman confessed a love of his book Pete and Roland, that idea first came about to start collecting these works. From there, other names in Australian children's literature came on board to donate their artworks.

In fact, when Ann James was bequeathed about 130 of her own artworks that a long-time customer had purchased from her over the years, she donated them to the centre. Among these works was a portrait that she had done of the customer's dog, Susie, which is included in the exhibition.

"What we're doing is we're collecting this for posterity," Alderman says.

"It doesn't belong to us and by our keeping and preserving them and keeping them in boxes and showing it, we're able to share the stories and make them available.

"Instead of an author and illustrator putting things under their bed or in their laundry, or it gets lost, this is the place where it can be loved and cherished and shared. And so that's the whole idea and exhibitions like this give us a chance to make sure that these things are appreciated."

  • Dog Tales is at the Mura Gadi Gallery, University of Canberra until June 23.

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This story Puppy love: A tribute to dogs in children's literature first appeared on The Canberra Times.